Population genomics of Bacillus anthracis from an anthrax hyperendemic area reveals transmission processes across spatial scales and unexpected within-host diversity

Forde TL, Dennis TPW, Aminu OR, Harvey WT, Hassim A, Kiwelu I, Medvecky M, Mshanga D, Van Heerden H, Vodel A, Zadoks RN, Mmbaga BT, Lembo T & Biek R (2021) bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.09.07.459365 PDF

Genomic sequencing has revolutionized our understanding of bacterial disease epidemiology, but remains underutilized for zoonotic pathogens in remote endemic settings. Anthrax, caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis, remains a threat to human and animal health and rural livelihoods in low- and middle-income countries. While the global genomic diversity of B. anthracis has been well-characterized, there is limited information on how its populations are genetically structured at the scale at which transmission occurs, critical for understanding the pathogen’s evolution and transmission dynamics. Using a uniquely rich dataset, we quantified genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) among 73 B. anthracis isolates derived from 33 livestock carcasses sampled over one year throughout the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, an area hyperendemic for anthrax. Genome-wide SNPs distinguished 22 unique B. anthracis genotypes within the study area. However, phylogeographic structure was lacking, as identical SNP profiles were found throughout the study area, likely the result of the long and variable periods of spore dormancy and long-distance livestock movements. Significantly, divergent genotypes were obtained from spatio-temporally linked cases and even individual carcasses. The high number of SNPs distinguishing isolates from the same host is unlikely to have arisen during infection, as supported by our simulation models. This points to an unexpectedly wide transmission bottleneck for B. anthracis, with an inoculum comprising multiple variants being the norm. Our work highlights that inferring transmission patterns of B. anthracis from genomic data will require analytical approaches that account for extended and variable environmental persistence as well as co-infection.